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University of Wyoming

Burton R. Sisco
Dean, College of Education, Rowan University

Abstract | Introduction | Purpose | Triarchic Theory | Adult Education | References

Published in Proceedings of the 30 Annual Adult Education Research Conference (pp 284-289), Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin-Madison, April 27-29, 1989.


This paper introduces and discusses the relevance of Robert Sternberg's triarchic theory of human intelligence for adult education.


Every once in awhile, someone comes along who has the power to change current thinking. Jean Piaget did this for early childhood education as Peter Drucker did for management and organizational development. In the field of adult education, Allen Tough offered new insights into the area of self-directed learning which changed the course of history. And of course, Malcolm Knowles has left his mark with the popularization of andragogy. Robert Sternberg, a trailblazer in cognitive psychology, has offered new ideas dealing with human intelligence that not only propose to alter the discipline of psychology, but adult education as well. His "triarchic theory of human intelligence" offers a more holistic understanding of intelligence and the way we learn. Although many theories of intelligence exist, Sternberg's theory is particularly noteworthy because it subsumes elements of other theories of intelligence by synthesizing much of what is known about intelligence into a coherent and comprehensive form (Farr and Moon, 1988).


The purpose of this study was to investigate Sternberg's triarchic theory of human intelligence and to see if it had any relevance for adult education. An intensive review of adult education literature revealed virtually no attention to Sternberg's work with the exception of Farr (1987), Farr and Moon (1988) and Sisco (1988) so the inquiry was judged to be potentially significant. Since the study involved synthesizing knowledge and information from Sternberg's work and his colleagues and then introducing it to another field or discipline, it is best described as a form of meta-research. This paper introduces Sternberg's intelligence theory and discusses its possible connections to adult education theory and practice. It is important to note that the present study was exploratory in nature, designed to promote dialogue and discussion among adult educators. Data sources included books, articles, and monographs written by or about Robert Sternberg and his triarchic theory of human intelligence. Primary sources were examined so as to construct an understanding of the origins of Sternberg's theory and its evolution to date. Relevant adult education literature was also examined.


According to Sternberg (1988), the study of human intelligence "has not been notable for rapid progress, either in theory or application" (p.4). This is probably an understatement since the tests used to measure intelligence look pretty much the same way today as when they were first introduced some sixty or seventy years ago. Traditional conceptions of intelligence have been fairly narrow in focus, often directly linked to how well people perform in school. As a result, intelligence has become synonymous with academic achievement.

This traditional view of intelligence has haunted Sternberg since his early days in grade school. Apparently, he performed so poorly on IQ tests in fifth-grade that he was nearly kept from progressing to sixth-grade. A retest under more relaxed circumstances saved him from such embarrassment and lead, as he has written, to "my lifelong interest in intelligence" (1988, p. x). Today, although barely forty years of age, he is arguably the most celebrated authority on matters dealing with human intelligence.

The evolution of Sternberg's thinking about human intelligence did not occur over night. During the late 1970s, he, like many other investigators of intelligence, was busily involved in the information-processing analysis of intelligence-test items. This work proved unsatisfactory for Sternberg since he began to question the assumption underlying this analysis that such items provide a reasonably comprehensive picture of intelligence (1987b, 1985a). His own experience with graduate students at Yale University seemed to belie this view. Some of his students came with impeccable credentials--high aptitude test scores, outstanding college grades, excellent letters of recommendation--while others had good grades, but abysmal aptitude test scores. Still others were very good on almost every measure of ability to succeed in graduate school, but not truly outstanding on any of them. What really intrigued Sternberg is that by the end of their graduate programs, some of the students who started out at the top of the class finished near the middle and vice-versa. This caused him to look more diligently at the factors associated with human intelligence since the usual measure of potential performance had not proved to be reliably predictive.

To explain this phenomenon, Sternberg began to see intelligence "in terms of three distinct but interrelated aspects; the internal world of the individual, the external world of the individual, and the experience of the individual" (1987a, p. 50). He reasoned that each of these aspects involve different mental processes and abilities. For example, the internal aspect of intelligence emphasizes analytic abilities, the external aspect adaptive abilities, and the experiential aspect synthetic abilities. With this in mind, Sternberg proposed his triarchic theory of human intelligence as a means of dealing with all three aspects of intelligence. He cogently summarized his motivation for a more coherent explanation of intelligent behavior by writing, "The convergence of my analysis of the research literature and my personal experience convinced me that what was needed was a 'triarchic' theory of human intelligence--one that did justice to each of these three aspects" (1988, p. 58).

According to Sternberg (1985a), the triarchic theory seeks to understand human intelligence in terms of three subtheories: a contextual subtheory that related intelligence to the external world of the individual; a componential subtheory that related intelligence to the internal world of the individual; and an experiential subtheory that applies to both the internal and external environments. The contextual subtheory focuses on intelligent behavior in the everyday world. Here individuals may choose to adapt to their environment, select another more desirable environment, or try to modify the environment so as to better meet their needs. The componential subtheory focuses on the kinds and identities of mental processes involved in intelligent thought. Three different kinds of components are involved including metacomponents (executive processes used to plan, monitor, and evaluate a problem), performance components (mental processes that execute the instructions of the metacomponents such as encoding, inferring, applying, and comparing), and knowledge-acquisition components (processes used in learning how to solve a problem or in learning new facts or concepts). The experiential subtheory focuses on the role of experience in intelligent behavior. Here, the ability to cope with novelty and to automatize familiar tasks are intimately related. Superior ability to deal with novelty enables the individual to move more rapidly and effectively toward automization. Similarly, superior automization ability frees more mental resources for dealing with novelty. Thus, the more aspects of a task or situation are automatized, the more one can focus attention on the novel aspects of the task or situation. Sternberg (1985a) captures the power of his theory by noting, "Behavior is intelligent to the extent that it is (a) used in the adaptation to, selection of, or shaping of one's environment; (b) responsive to a novel kind of task or situation or in the process of becoming automatized; and (c) the result of metacomponential, performance-componential, or knowledge-acquisition functioning of the kind specified by the componential subtheory" (p 319).

In addition to the triarchic theory, Sternberg has also focused his talents on a number of related topics including the study of creativity and wisdom (1985c, 1986b,) an understanding of practical intelligence (Wagner & Sternberg, 1985; Sternberg & Wagner, 1986), the relationship between intelligence and tacit knowledge (Wagner & Sternberg, 1985), and the training of intelligence (1986a, 1987a,b, 1988). To this end, he has devoted considerable attention to the development of a training program designed to help people increase their intellectual skills as well as to better understand these skills. Most recently, he has focused his attention on the development of a theory of mental self-government that proposes a set of intellectual styles as a bridge between intelligence and personality. According to the theory, intellectual styles can be understood as governmental in (a) function (legislative, executive, judicial), (b) form (monarchic, hierarchic, oligarhic, anarchic) (c) level (global, local), (d) scope (internal, external) and (e) leaning (conservative, progressive). Sternberg believes that "these styles can be used to explain and predict aspects of performance in school, on the job, and in personal life that cannot be directly attributed to intelligence" (1988, p. 275).

Relevance for Adult Education

The human intelligence work of Robert Sternberg appears to offer a number of notable possibilities for adult education and seems to be particularly relevant to both practitioners and theoreticians alike. One suspects that in coming years, Sternberg's work will be looked to for guidance, explanation, and edification. Already this is true in public schools where challenges to traditional IQ testing are being made. However, in adult education, the impact of his work remains to be seen. Thus, discussion which follows will hopefully spark greater dialogue among adult educators regarding Sternberg's work. One of the most significant implications would appear to be something that many adult educators have believed, at least implicitly, for a long time now; that human intelligence is much more than performance on standardized tests and achievement in schools. We have all experienced the occasion when certain participants in our programs performed poorly on standardized tests and yet performed splendidly in their actual class assignments. Perhaps as a way of explaining this phenomena, we reasoned that such people must be "underachievers" or we looked for sources of their puzzling behavior outside of their measured intelligence. We might even have thought that there must be more to intelligence than the tests measure. The problem has been that prevailing intelligence theories have continued to stress performance on standardized tests as evidence claims in the face of enormous empirical and political support from psychometricians and psychologists alike testifying to the efficacy of conventional intelligence testing and commensurate intelligence theories. Add to this, an almost atheoretical stance by many adult educators and the plot thickens.

Sternberg believes these conventional notions of intelligence and companion tests to be fatally flawed and provides convincing evidence to support his claims (1985a,d). For example, the problem with most intelligence theories and supporting tests is they tend to emphasize speed and accuracy of processing and often consist of tasks that have nothing to do with performance in real-world settings. Sternberg (1984b) argues that most of the consequential tasks people face in life do not require problem solving or decision-making in the few seconds typically allotted for the solution of IQ test problems. Rather, they require an intelligent allocation of one's time to the various subproblems or problems at hand.

Sternberg goes even further in his critique of conventional intelligence testing by noting that they simply do a poor job of predicting performance in the real world. Consider two observations. First, with surprising frequency, individuals with histories of remarkable performance in formal schooling are only moderately successfully in their occupations, and conversely, individuals with unremarkable academic records are highly successful in their occupations. Second, many professionals report that most if not all of the learning that really mattered to their careers took place after completion of their formal training (Wagner & Sternberg, 1985). The obvious point in all of this, according to Sternberg, is that intelligence is more than what various measures of school achievement and standardized tests measure (1987a). It is a quality that we use continually in our everyday lives-- on the job, in our interpersonal relationships, in decision making. His triarchic theory, which explicates the relationship of the internal world of the individual, the external world of the individual, and the role of experience, helps adult educators to understand the dynamic and interrelated qualities of human intelligence and its potential bearing in everyday life. Thus, adult educators have at their disposal, a theoretical model that can be applied to the vary contexts that constitute so much of adulthood: the everyday world.

Another implication of Sternberg's work is his assumption that intelligence can be taught. In fact, he has devoted an entire book for training intellectual skills at the high school and collegiate level (1986a). A more recent book (1988) has been developed for use by the lay public. At the heart of Sternberg's training program is his triarchic theory. His program begins with a discussion and critique of the major approaches to intelligence followed by an explication of his triarchic theory that he believes does justice to the full range of thought and behavior that constitutes intelligence. The triarchic theory is then discussed in detail followed by in-depth treatment of each subtheory with applied examples and exercises. A final part of this program deals with typical impediments to the full realization of one's intelligence such as lack of motivation, lack of impulse control, lack or perseverance, inability to translate thought into action, fear of failure procrastination, distractibility and so forth (1987a). The main strength of Sternberg's intelligence training program is that it is based on a theory that has been subjected to fairly extensive and rigorous empirical testing. It emphasizes a broad range of intellectual skills and focuses on academic as well as practical intelligence. Finally, the program has assessment tools for measuring training effects. Sternberg's intelligence training program would seem to be of vital interest to adult education practitioners at all levels from basic education through graduate study in that it presumes a developmental epistemology as well as an applied approach to intellectual augmentation.

An additional implication of Sternberg's triarchic theory may be in the realm of further informing adult education theory and practice. Some writers such as Brookfield (1986) and Courtney (1986) have gone so far as to question if adult education can ever attain a general theory of adult learning, Merriam (1987) suggests that although one unified adult learning theory may never emerge, "theory building efforts in adult learning do contribute to our growing understanding of adult learning" (p.197). Bright (1988) is less tolerant and accepting of adult education efforts to date. He believes that "epistemological vandalism" has occurred in relation to adult education and psychology. He cites three major epistemological issues within this relationship; 1) the origin of knowledge currently being used within adult education; 2) the selection of knowledge content within curricula in adult education; 3) the status of this derived knowledge at the hands of adult education. Bright reinforces his argument by noting that the treasured adult education theory of andragogy his its rightful roots in Humanistic Psychology and that this attribution has only been selectively acknowledged. In addition, Bright maintains that psychological knowledge has received a high level of abbreviation and lack of detail in the teaching and research of adult education.

Being sympathetic to both points of view, it is the opinion of this author that Sternberg's work does have much relevance to adult education theory and practice. The fact that adult educators have focused attention on the characteristics of adult learners in an effort to distinguish their field from other areas of education seems inescapable (Brookfield, 1986). Inevitably, such characteristics as readiness to learn, self-direction in learning, applied learning orientation, and extensive experience are used to describe adult learners and differentiate them from their younger counterparts. The problem has been that there is very little empirical evidence to substantiate such claims. Sternberg's triarchic theory appears to offer some clarity to this otherwise muddled situation. His acknowledgement that intelligent behavior consists of mental, social, and experiential skills and abilities is an excellent starting point. So too is his assertion that IQ matters less in adult-hood; tacit knowledge--what people need to know in order to get along in their environment--is far more important. With careful attention to the triarchic theory, adult educators can begin to understand the comprehensive nature of human intelligence and its impact in real-world settings. More importantly, adult educators have solid theoretical model that confirms and substantiates their own tacit experience.

The human intelligence work of Robert Sternberg provides a base for new thinking about adult learning and education as well new vistas for research and practice. This brief discussion has hopefully provided an introduction to a promising theoretical perspective and encouraged dialogue and action among adult educators everywhere.


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